This week’s New Yorker’s Financial Page featured an insightful look at unionized labor and how the “Great Recession” has negatively impacted the public’s view of all organized power structures from government to big business and on to union groups, with a 41 % approval rating in the most recent Pew poll. Needless to say, this rating is an all time low for unionized labor groups that held a more than 70% approval rating in 1937. Not only are unions unpopular, but the same Pew poll reveals that 60 % of the people believe unions to have too much power. Of course, a multitude of factors have contributed to this depreciation of favor in the last seventy or so years; where both union workers and non-unioned workers both benefitted in the past (40 hour workweeks, weekends off) the union workers seem to be the only ones enjoying the bounty of being unionized (higher pay and pension).
While labor unions comprise the largest public voice for workers’ rights, the public opinion that consists primarily of workers is shifting toward resentment, viewing labor unions as another special interest group profiting at the cost of the outsiders. The public image of unions remains key according to James Surowiecki who quotes a study from 1984 from the economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff who revealed a link that existed between the public perception of unions and their popularity. So unions as a general concept might find themselves in danger of losing any incisive voice or authority, gaining in impotency as they lose their popularity.
These developments all make sense with the prevailing attitudes vaguely resembling Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” with all corporate (in the communal sense) identities being mistrusted at all costs. What had been for some thinkers like Walt Whitman, an idea of the USA: a place where one’s origins became secondary to a greater common venture; an idea that had won out against many other global corporate narratives and ideas in the last century but has slowly fizzled since the Vietnam war, and finally accumulated with the appearance of President Obama’s vision, whose attempts at inspiring a more perfect union do not seem to be succeeding.
Regardless of what the future holds (it will always remain fascinating), it is helpful to retain an awareness of the dynamics of the working force at which ever level you happen to occupy . Inc. magazine has gathered some helpful resources for small businesses and how to approach unions here: http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/12/what-small-businesses-should-know-about-unions_pagen_2.html.